Try a fresh cranberry sauce recipe this year with pears, hibiscus, bourbon, and more. You can make it ahead of time and store in the fridge for 4 days or freeze it well in advance.
Start with a basic recipe
For a simple cranberry sauce, try a 3-ingredient recipe or make it in an Instant Pot. Jellied cranberry sauce can take trial and error, but it's a classic worth making. Don't miss the tips to get it to set just right.
Fruity & floral
Adding other seasonal fruits sweetens cranberry sauce without as much sugar. Pears and grapes cook down to a softer texture, whereas apples can maintain crispness unless cooked longer.
Smoked & spicy
A great alternative to super-sweet tasting sauces, add a bit of heat or smokey flavor.
Pretty much any type of alcohol is fair game when it comes to cranberry sauce. If the alcohol isn't cooked off, it can taste a bit too boozy (in my opinion, you can disagree). Because of this, I like to add my liquor of choice to a pan and heat it until the alcohol burns off and I've left with the spirit's underlying flavor (like bourbon). Then I add in all of the other ingredients and continue to cook as instructed.
Alternative natural sweeteners
If you are staying away from white sugar, try one of these alternatives.
How to make jellied cranberry sauce
Cranberries are very high in pectin, the naturally occurring compound that helps things gel (like for jams and jellies). In order to make a jam or jelly set, pectin needs acid, sugar, and heat.
A few tips to help your cranberry sauce gel
- Ripeness: just-ripe berries have the most pectin, and it decreases as the berries continue to ripen (to dark red)
- Acid: Cranberries are high in acid, so extra isn't needed to make it set
- Sugar: Don't mess with the liquid-sugar ratios in recipes: sugar is needed to help it set
- Heat matters: when heating it, make sure it reaches 210 degrees and simmers around that temperature for 10-20 minutes. Longer simmering makes a stronger gel.
- Cooling matters: the sauce will gel as it cools in the fridge (at least 2 hours), but it gets stronger as it sits for up to 24-48 hours
- Freezing jellied sauce that is meant to be molded might break down the gelled properties, causing it to not hold a shape.
Source: Influence of Preparation and Processing on Cranberry Gel Properties
Render Food Magazine conducted an experiment on the gelling properties of 5 various recipes and techniques. They found the basic Ocean Spray recipe, with increased cooking time to 20 minutes (up from 10), produced the best gelled mold.
You can also practice ahead of Thanksgiving with Scientific American's at-home experiment to help test the setting properties.
- 3 ingredients, from Baking a Moment and Ocean Spray
- With apples from Food & Wine
- With added pectin from Food 52 (a more fool-proof way to ensure it sets and holds in a mold)
Fixing sauce consistency and flavor
How to thin down cranberry sauce
Cranberry sauce thickens up as it cools in the fridge. If it's thicker than intended, heat it up and add a little extra liquid. Orange or apple juice make good options so they don't water down the flavor.
Be careful of adding extra alcohol when reheated, as it won't cook long enough to burn that alcoholic flavor off.
How to thicken sauce
If the sauce is too runny, two things can fix it. Heat and sugar:
- Cook it longer (or reheat if you already let it chill). Heating it helps by releasing more of the cranberries' natural pectin, and it also evaporates more liquid to allow it to thicken.
- Add more sugar. Pectin needs sugar to help it gel and thicken. If you reduced the sugar in a recipe (or added too much liquid, changing the sugar-to-liquid ratio), the pectin might not have had enough sugar to help it gel. You want to aim for at least ½ a cup of sugar for each 12 oz bag of cranberries.
How to fix a bitter sauce
Sugar and salt can be used to reduce bitter flavors.
Sugar reduces our ability to taste bitterness, which is one of the main reasons some people like coffee better with sugar. This also means that sweetening up your cranberry sauce will make it taste less bitter.
Add sugar to the sauce, a little at a time, while it heats on the stove. Stir to dissolve, then taste and continue to add sugar as necessary. If your sauce has already cooled and you don't have time to reheat it, add agave syrup, simple syrup, honey, maple syrup, or apple juice (all of which don't need the heat to dissolve).
Salt can also mask bitter flavors. Instead of adding salt to the sauce (which might mess with the flavor), try eating something salty, then tasting the cranberry sauce again. Does it taste less bitter? If so, it will be perfect when eaten along a salty Thanksgiving meal.
For a fun holiday party trick, bring these bitter taste test strips to find out who might be a super taster. Just be ready with a palette cleanser, as that bitterness will linger if it tastes strong to you.
More on cranberries
Check out all of the produce guides and what's in season each month.
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